How samurai, statesmen, and scholars shaped the Japanese tea ceremony

The ritual of drinking tea in Japan, known as chado, evolved over centuries into a codified practice, steeped in Zen thought, mindfulness, and simplicity.

By Irene Seco
Published 19 Nov 2021, 14:29 GMT
The recipe for a Japanese tea ceremony
Kimono-clad women participate in a Japanese tea ceremony in this late 19th-century illustration by Toshikata Mizuno. The ceremony is very complex and more than just about tea. Tea masters say it takes 10 years of study to master the ceremony.
Photograph by Bridgeman/ACI

The ritualised drinking of tea in Japan, called chado, or the way of tea, is a uniquely Japanese art form that has thrived for 500 years. While the heart of the ceremony involves brewing, serving, and drinking tea in a specialised tea room, it also comprises elements of architecture, landscape gardening, ceramics, painting, calligraphy, flower arranging, and cooking (food may be served, depending on the ceremony). Tea masters say it takes 10 years of study to master the ceremony in its entirety. Writing in 1933, the Japan scholar A.L. Sadler said the ceremony involved 37 steps that are unchanged to this day.

Between the 14th and 16th centuries, a new way to repair broken tea bowls emerged in Japan. Rather than being discarded, broken vessels were mended with a blend of tree sap lacquer and gold in a technique called kintsugi. The result highlights rather than hides the cracks, expressing the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, or the beauty of imperfections. This 1600 tea bowl was mended by master potter Honami Koetsu.
Photograph by Granger/AURImages

Still widely practiced in Japan (and increasingly internationally), the tea ceremony is an elegant, codified ritual, rooted in Zen thought and symbolism and designed to achieve a total immersion in the moment as well as shared intimacy with fellow participants.

“Today people in Japan participate in tea (the tea ceremony) for social and spiritual reasons,” said Jennifer L. Anderson, a lecturer emeritus in anthropology at San Jose State University. “Most enjoy the company of tea friends and the aesthetics of tea—a flower arrangement, a scroll with calligraphy, and the utensils, all of which vary with the season. This has not changed in hundreds of years.”

Medicine and meditation

The tea ceremony has its origins in Chinese Buddhist monasteries, where it was used for medicinal purposes and as a stimulant to ward off drowsiness during meditation. By the time of China’s Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907), tea was widely appreciated there as a social drink.

At the height of Japan’s first cultural contact with Tang China, Kukai, a Japanese monk who studied Buddhism in China, introduced the Shingon sect of Buddhism to Japan in 806. He also brought a brick of green tea to the Japanese court. Tea drinking began to be popular among Japan’s court aristocracy and in its Buddhist ceremonies.

(Buddha's birthplace yields clues about his mysterious life.)

Another major step toward integrating tea in Japan came in the 12th century, when the Japanese monk Eisai returned from study in China with seeds for growing tea and a method for making matcha, a powdered green tea that could be mixed into a frothy thick drink. Eisai also brought Zen Buddhism to Japan. He is considered the founder of Rinzai Zen, which is based on the belief that enlightenment can be attained in the course of performing everyday acts. Japanese monks applied this conviction to drinking tea, which eventually transformed the practices learned in China into a distinctly Japanese ritual now known as the chado tea ceremony.

“The tea ritual today is a Japanese phenomenon,” said Anderson. “The emphasis on seasonal aesthetics and the formal choreography is very Japanese.” 

Tea and samurai

During the Muromachi period (ca 1333-1573), as Japan’s domestic tea harvests grew, the beverage gained popularity among the warrior and merchant classes. They held lavish banquets featuring bowls of matcha. At times sake was served, too, turning tea drinking in monasteries into raucous parties, with play and poetry readings, gambling, and contests. Guests competed by showing off pricey ceramics and tea utensils from China, along with scrolls and paintings. Warrior leaders would even send envoys to China to collect objects specifically for such occasions.

(One traveler searches for the perfect cup of tea in China.)

In 1467 nearly two centuries of warfare began as samurai warlords fought for control of Japan during the Sengoku, or “Warring States,” period. During this time, the tea ceremony became a more prescribed ritual. The Japan scholar Herbert Plutschow wrote that tea, based on the Zen concepts of harmony and respect, helped forge consensus among rivals. “To ritually overcome the turmoil, tea had to become such a highly refined ritual art,” he said. “Without tea, the destruction of the Warring States period might have been much worse.”

The refinement of the tea ritual was the product of three tea masters who acted as advisers to the shoguns during this period. The first was Murata Shuko (1423-1502), a Zen monk who became a tea merchant in Kyoto. Rejecting flamboyant banquets, Shuko believed tea drinking went beyond entertainment, medicinal use, and temple ceremonies. For him, the preparation and drinking of tea represented a spiritual path in life, requiring a simpler aesthetic.

The only document attributed to Shuko, the Kokoro no fumi, or “Letter From the Heart,” was written to a disciple. He wrote that beauty could be found not only in the manufactured perfection of Chinese tools but also in the simplicity and spareness of Japanese utensils. He found aesthetic value in wood and bamboo for the tea scoops and flower containers along with the Chinese ivory or bronze.

Shuko also called for simplicity in the space for tea drinking, removing clutter that distracted from the moment. Instead of bouquets of flowers, he used a single arrangement of seasonal blooms; instead of various scrolls of calligraphy, there would be only one. His tea-ware was subdued, featuring earth tones instead of bright colours. The room itself would be only four and a half tatami mats (about 80 square feet), creating a symbolic space known as soan cha, or thatched hut tea. This atmosphere of tranquillity, discipline, and solemnity won many converts, especially among the samurai class.

The way of the tea

The Buddhist monk Takeno Joo (1502-1555) furthered the Zen simplicity of Shuko’s “thatched hut tea.” A student of both poetry and tea, Joo was the first to use the term wabi in tea drinking, a complex concept that can be defined as a pure and rustic beauty. In poetry, Joo felt the image of barren snowdrifts on a lonely mountain was more poetic than the blossoms and aromas of spring. Guided by the wabi philosophy, the tea ceremony centred on simplicity and humility.

Joo’s disciple Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) would have the most profound influence on chado. His guidelines for its procedures and utensils, as well as teahouse architecture and tea-garden landscaping are the basis for the modern schools of the “way of tea.” He combined the quiet simplicity of wabi with an appreciation for the old and faded, called sabi. Together, wabi-sabi is a concept that expanded to other Japanese art forms, but none more so than the tea ceremony.

This teahouse in the gardens of the Katsura Imperial Villa, in Kyoto, Japan, was first built in the 17th century.
Photograph by Alamy/ACI

Rikyu also introduced more radical changes. He designed a low entrance to the tea hut, forcing all guests to bow to enter as a way to eliminate social distinctions (samurai would have to leave their swords at the entrance). Rikyu believed all were equal in the teahouse, a revolutionary idea in Japan’s hierarchical class system at the time.

(Discover the history behind the drink at the world's best places to get tea.)

Rikyu’s tea ceremony used simple bowls (local Japanese ware, along with Korean and Chinese), and had guests walk through a garden adjacent to the tea room to put their minds at ease before entering. A tea room he designed in 1582 is even smaller than Shuko’s, with only two mats (36 square feet). Named Taian, it still exists at the Myokian temple near Kyoto.

Rikyu’s tea ceremony remained largely unchanged for centuries, but in the 19th century the Meiji Restoration would expand the world of tea ceremonies to include women. Before the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the tea ceremony was almost exclusively male, but in the late 19th century it was introduced in schools as a way to instruct young Japanese women in decorum and etiquette.

In 1894 women were certified to teach professionally and soon became a vital presence in maintaining the art of the tea ceremony. After the upheavals of World War II, the tea ceremony grew in popularity as a way to maintain Japanese traditions. Today most teachers and students of tea are women, although increasing numbers of men are attending tea ceremony salons to find an outlet from the stresses of daily life.

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